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Case dogged by catalogue of flaws

Published 03/06/2016

The Deepcut barracks
The Deepcut barracks

The investigation into Private Cheryl James' death was dogged by flaws from the start, not least by Surrey Police and the Army.

From the moment the teenage soldier's body was found on a grass verge near Royal Way Gate at Deepcut Barracks on November 27 1995, mistakes were made that compromised the scientific integrity of the scene and made it nigh-on impossible for investigators to be certain about their conclusions.

The inquest heard a "forensic pathway" was never adequately secured; one former Ministry of Defence police officer said there was no cordon and "no control" in place, and another likened the search for the gun cartridge presumed to be from Pte James' rifle to a search for a "lost ball".

Little more than an hour after her body was discovered, a coroner's officer had made the decision that a full forensic investigation was not needed.

And within two hours of officers arriving at the scene police had found letters in Pte James' quarters that suggested she was "troubled", decided that there were no suspicious circumstances and came to the conclusion that it was suicide.

The dissection of the inadequate investigation drew an apology from former Surrey Police inspector Michael Day, who had been called to the barracks that day.

Alison Foster QC, representing the family, put it to him: "There was no fingerprint evidence taken from the gun. No swabs taken of Cheryl James' hands or face. No fingertip search of the area around the body before it was moved. No ballistics testing of any cartridge case."

He did not examine the body, weapon or scene himself, and conceded he relied on information from scenes-of-crime experts and his CID officer.

Apologising to Private James' family during the inquest, he said: "Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I had to make that decision again I would have without a doubt taken a different course of action."

The inquest heard conflicting evidence about who was the first to find Pte James and about whether she or the rifle could have been moved, with some suggesting it looked as though it may have been placed next to her and others swearing it had not been touched.

A search for the spent rifle cartridge - found two metres from her body - was carried out by officers using "hands and feet" rather than a careful fingertip search, and a Royal Military Police trainee said the casing could have accidentally been moved.

Robert Rumbold, the coroner's officer who called off the full forensic examination, told the inquest he assumed Pte James' death was an accident or suicide because there were no signs of anything suspicious.

He emphatically denied he had "swept suspicions under the carpet" and said he did not see any evidence of a third party being involved.

The inquest also heard that no ballistics tests were carried out in 1995 to determine whether the cartridge was shot by the rifle found next to Pte James, and the casing was disposed of the following year.

An inspection of the weapon was made for faults, but after being stored in the armoury no further tests took place, and it was cleaned to go back into service a few months later.

During a post-mortem examination of Pte James, bullet fragments were discovered, but were never recovered or analysed, and no tests were made about whether black powder on her face and eyelashes was mascara, dirt or gunshot residue.

But ballistics experts told the inquest the black sooty marks on her face were consistent with an intimate contact shot.

In 2002 Surrey Police announced it was reviewing the deaths of the four recruits who died at Deepcut and recommended three soldiers - including her boyfriends Pte Paul Wilkinson and Pte Simeon Carr-Minns - should have been re-interviewed about what happened with Pte James and considered a suspect.

A major crime review team raised concerns around the initial investigation, triggering the Surrey Police probe.

The review team described statements taken from people in connection with Pte James' death as "sub-standard".

A later review of the Surrey force's probe by Devon and Cornwall Police found the two men and a third unnamed man had not been interviewed or subjected to Trace Interview Eliminate (TIE) action.

Ballistics tests were also carried out by German scientists, which did not rule out that she could have been killed by someone else.

But police only initially asked them to examine a suicide hypothesis and as they prepared their 2003 report Surrey Police wrote to them to try to hurry them along, which they refused.

Defending Surrey Police's handling of the investigation, Craig Denholm, deputy chief superintendent at the time, denied resources were spread too thinly and said officers were moved from other high-profile cases to work on Deepcut.

Mr Denholm said the force was also investigating the disappearance of Milly Dowler, the M25 rapist and a number of other murders, calling March 2003 an "unprecedented time" in his 32-year career.

And he claimed the second investigation into Pte James' death was not "cursory", but lasted 15 months.

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